Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Journey to the Ukraine

After two plane rides, several car rides, a cross-country bus ride, and a somewhat startling taxi ride, I’ve finally arrived to my summer home: Zaporozhe, Ukraine. The city is beautiful – so much different than what I had anticipated. Granted, I’ve not seen much of it, but enough to know that I am already enthralled and ready to explore.

The past several days have been a complete whirlwind. I left the states late Friday night. Sunday morning I arrived in Charles De Gaulle in Paris. What a beautiful city to fly into. The sky view is so different from the States. In many ways, the lay of the land reflects the cultures and societies of the two nations. Whereas the land of the states is divided consistently into efficient, fully utilized square acres, France’s land is somewhat haphazardly divided, with villages lazily sprawled in anything but an organized manner. I hardly knew we had arrived at Paris until we were already descending. No suburbs efficiently condensing into a large metropolitan like in the states. Instead, a few villages sprinkled here and there and suddenly the city is upon you. It is breathtaking. I arrived with a sore back. I had the misfortune to sit behind a rather tall, rude, non-communication friendly, seat-kicking man. The good news is that he fell asleep finally, so I was able to travel at least part of the flight in peace.

For a large international airport, Charles De Gaulle seemed very informal and relaxed. I had a bit of a culture shock as I sought out my connection. Being an impatient, time-sensitive American, I assumed terminal transfers (because for some reason, the designers of the airport felt no need to connected the terminals in a way that can be accessed by passengers) arrived every five or ten minutes. Not so - the French will not be rushed by flight schedules. I managed to make my way to three incorrect terminals before finding my connection (which, by the way, was incorrectly posted on the all-knowing flight summary screens!). But I made it on time and I was off to the Ukraine.

I arrived in Kiev Sunday around 6 pm. Max (my savvy and absolutely essential travel expert) had been waiting an hour. Immediately I was rushed off to Max’s family’s house for a quick nap, shower, and meal before the 9 hour bus ride to Zaporozhe. It was then that I truly met the culture of the Ukraine for the first time. At the gate of the house, Max’s babushka (grandmother) waited with a stern yet somehow inviting look. I was greeted by his mother in the main room. At first, I was afraid I had offended somehow by the expression on her face, but I now realize she is one of the most warm, dear, and inviting women I know. The expression was merely her culture manifesting itself. Eastern Europeans are not quick to smile as Americans are, but that does not mean they are any less hospitable or kind. I took a few pictures of the area with Max before he gently warned me that the area may not be the best to photograph. I wanted to capture the beauty and the memory of the family, which I was able to do. But the experience reminded me that as good as it is to capture the moment in film, it is not always the wisest or most sensitive endeavor. Of course I could not sleep, so I spent a few short hours reading and reacquainting myself with walking (I had almost forgotten after two days of flying). Dinner was amazing – a broasted chicken with a fresh tomato and cucumber anti-pasto, potatoes, a variety of teas, and Ukrainian bread.

With Max as the translater, we spoke of American politics, the current political crisis in the Ukraine, Hope International, and our faith. Max’s mom put her arm around me and said something endearing in Russian. I now understand the difficult international students and immigrants face on an ongoing basis. I felt incredibly welcome, but isolated by a filter of language. I absolutely must learn Russian as soon as possible! To be honest, the language terrifies me a bit. When we first arrived, I felt trapped constantly between arguments. Russian is a very blunt, direct, and forceful language with few vowels to soften the delivery of words. What is often a simple, congenial conversation to me sounds like an argument. Even the printed language seems to take on a manner of scolding. By far and wide, everything is in caps, and exclamation points often accompany written words. So if you don’t feel accosted verbally, it seems the written word is lighting into you for something or another. I’m sure, however, that I will adjust soon. I tend to be overly sensitive (as you gasp reading this, right?), so it’s not surprising that Eastern European languages will take a little longer for me to adjust to.

With dinner finished, we were off to the bus for Zaporozhe. The nine hour bus ride was incredible. As we left Kyiv, Max and I talked more about the current political crisis between Yanukovech and Yuschenkov as well as the cultural and political oppressiveness that at one time, led him to leave what can feel a dark, weighted place for Western Europe. Just as we were speaking of the protests (which, by the way, are widely known in Kyiv to be staged… most ‘protesters’ are paid), around fifteen buses carrying between fifty to one hundred orange-clad (the President’s color) youth and adults passed us with a police escort. It was surreal to me. The transitional period and the political crisis here are real and a daily part of the lives of Ukrainians. Most are skeptical, but there still remains the hope that this will perhaps lead to less oppression, a greater environment of freedom and liberation, and less corruption. Max described how when he made the decision to return to the Ukraine, he felt the weight of the culture and society descend on him the moment he stepped off the plane. It is something he yearns to see changed, yet something that he knows will take time.

As we continued through the country side, I was quickly taken back. I had tried to mentally prepare myself for widespread poverty relative to the United States and less development. But no amount of images that I played through my mind prepared me for what I saw. The infrastructure of the country is extremely weak. We were on some of the best roads (and one was hands down the best road of the country), yet there were still dips and sways in the pavement. My father is a civil engineer, and from him, I know that the dips and sways come from improper packing and pouring – which is common for road completed on too low of budgets or too fast of schedules. As we bounced through the country, I realized in a very tangible way that the poverty is not something felt simply by families and children. It is a challenge faced by the country as a whole. The Ukraine does not typically come to mind when you think of impoverished countries, but from what I saw today, it will always stick with me as a nation struggling for democracy and development to be free from the constraints of poverty.

Aside from the infrastructure, the poverty is everywhere. I struggled to find areas of relative affluence. For the most part, I found none. While there are undoubtedly areas of wealth in the cities, the areas we traveled to were extremely poor compared to the United States. Some houses were constructed of tin. Most were dilapidated concrete buildings. Certainly, most offered sufficient shelter and suggested at least sustenance. But many did not, and all I saw could not compare to what we in the US would consider lower middle-class. It changed my perspective entirely. Poverty that wreaks havoc on entire nations is alive and well – and at work here in the Ukraine.

The land of the Ukraine brings a strange contrast to the buildings and development. Max informed me that over 40% of the world’s blackest and most fertile earth is located in the Ukraine. It shows. The land is lush and green. Trees grow in abundance. We even passed two fields with lilacs and dogwoods distributed so thickly that the entire bus smelled of the flowers for a few minutes. For the majority of the trip, I felt that I was back in the Loess Hills of Northwest Iowa, but the Ukraine is much greener than even the famous Loess Hills. Nevertheless, a similar climate as well as similar plants and trees are found among the two areas as they are on the same global latitude.

I’ve never seen such a contrast of the beauty of the land and the ugliness of poverty against one another. Years of cultural and political oppression have taken their toll on what could otherwise be a land of abundance. This is also one of the reasons that there is hope among the youth and one of the reasons that Hope is at work. The Ukraine is a country with great developmental and economic potential. They are a relatively peaceful and loving people – they simply need a political culture free from the corruption and oppression currently at work.

While my internal clocks are hopelessly off at this point (I’ve not slept for two days – not since leaving the States), Max was able to sleep through part of the end of our ride. It proved comical. We were crammed into two adjoining seats intended for sleep on an overnight bus ride. A few elbows were inadvertently thrown but we arrived in one piece all the same. We arrived in Zaporozhe around 7:30 am local time, or 11:30 pm for what I’m used to. Part of me was ready to go to sleep when we reached my apartment, but the other half has adjusted to the lighting, so sleep eludes me once again.

Zaporozhe is astonishing. We drove in across the river, greeted by a fortress and an arching stone bridge. As we pulled closer into the city, we passed several parks and a statue of Lenin. We neared the center of the city, where I was surprised and happy to learn that the two bedroom Ashley and I will be staying in is located. It’s perfect – so much more than I had anticipated in the city! It’s a large two-bedroom with a view of the inner courtyard and even a little balcony. I could not be in a more blissful state. I’ve seen both the beauty of the country and the devastation of poverty that stretches beyond what I imagined. But I also know that Hope is ever-expanding here and that its work is effective and life-changing. My work begins tomorrow and I could not be more excited about starting. I’m looking forward to sharing more of what I learn about this increasingly fascinating country, and how Hope is working to aid those marginalized within it.

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